How To Have A Supportive Conversation Around Mental Health

April is Stress Awareness Month so let’s continue having supportive conversations around anxiety, stress and mental health.

Good communication skills are an essential way for us to strengthen our relationships and connect with others, and are especially useful should you know someone who is struggling with their mental health.

However as we navigate along life’s journey, there are a number of challenges that we need to consider when initiating a conversation around mental health with a friend or colleague.

Where Is The Best Place To Initiate The Conversation?

Finding the right environment to initiate the conversation is just as important as what you say.

Consider who else is around or who could overhear your conversation as this may prevent your friend or colleague from fully opening up to you.

If you are in a public place, either on a phone call or online, this may impact the quality of the conversation if they are concerned about being overheard, so are you able to use headphones so they have more privacy?

Taking a walk in nature is a great way for them to open up as there is no direct eye contact when we are walking side by side. Also, being in nature enables them to see opportunities to think differently when they may not be able to imagine these in the place where their worries exist.

Speak to an Anxiety Specialist

Set Time Aside So You Can Give Them Your Full Attention

It is important to give them your full attention as they are unlikely to fully engage with you if they feel you are distracted or multitasking.

Focus on what they are saying and nod to show them that you have heard them. You want to learn more about them so reassure them that you are there for them.

Difficult conversations about mental health at work

Avoid Closed Questions That Require A Yes Or No Answer

Instead, ask questions starting with what, where, when, why or how.

These include questions such as “how does that make you feel?” or “what has been going on for you recently?” or “when did this start?”

Don’t Invalidate What They Say Or Feel

It may be easy to tell them that things are not so bad, or it will all work out well in the end.

While this might sound that you are helping and making them feel better, they feel it is an impossible challenge right now and you are invalidating what they are saying and feeling.

Don’t Assume You Know The Answer

You are not expected to be an expert in mental health and you don’t know the specifics of their situation.

If you are unsure what to say, remind yourself that they are not expecting you to solve their challenges in one conversation.

Often, just listening is helpful and lets them know that you care.

Speak to an anxiety expert

Do Repeat Back What They Say To Ensure You Have Understood Correctly

It may be the first time they have spoken about their feelings out loud so if something isn’t clear and you need to clarify it, repeat their words back to them and ask them to explain what they mean by that.

Never assume you know or put your own understanding ahead of theirs as there is often no easy solution to complex problems.

Difficult conversation around mental health with a friend

Don’t Compare Their Story To Yours

Whilst it may be tempting to offer advice of how you solved or overcame something similar, you are unable to fully understand how they are feeling as you have had different life experiences to them.

Whilst it may feel that you supporting them, you are actually turning the conversation over to you when the purpose is for them to feel heard.

Show Empathy Over Sympathy

Empathy is imagining what it is like to be in their shoes, trying to see their point of view, whereas sympathy shows pity and sorrow for the other person and this may create more feelings of guilt.

Saying something like, “I can only imagine how you are feeling” sounds so much more caring and supportive than “That sucks for you”.

Ask Empowering Questions

Empowering involves giving them the tools and information they need to make their own decisions. They will feel far more empowered if you ask “What do you think would be the first step to take” or “What do you need to happen next”.  

When they can think about finding a solution themselves, rather than you giving them the solution,  they start taking back some control of their situation.

The solution to the problem will be different for everyone so don’t try and solve their problem with your own advice, as it may not be the right solution for them.

Give them the space to work out what is the best solution for them.

Difficult conversation around mental ill health, on phone with parent

Encourage Them To Seek Professional Help

Unless you are a mental health specialist, don’t diagnose their problem. Encourage them to seek professional help if necessary.

I hope you have found these techniques helpful. While they provide temporary relief from anxiety, it is important to seek professional help if anxiety is impacting daily life.

An Anxiety Specialist can prescribe a personalised treatment plan and help you develop coping strategies that are focused around individual needs.

Taking care of your mental health is an essential part of your overall well-being.


Other Resources You May Be Interested In:

What Causes Anxiety? 

How to Overcome Anxiety

Can Our Thoughts Cause Anxiety?

5 Techniques to Ease Anxiety